Will Self: How the Dead Live

Will Self
How the Dead Live
Grove Press

IT WAS ONLY a matter of time before British writer Will Self created his own underworld. Great Apes imagined a universe where humans were pitiable underachievers, while The Sweet Smell of Psychosis conjured the cocaine-fueled abasement of London's almost famous. Now, in How the Dead Live, Self trains his ferocious wit on the afterlife--a topic the author treats with a characteristic lack of reverence.

The novel's narrator, Lily Bloom, is one of the most curmudgeonly figures to appear in recent memory. Self is clearly punning on Joyce's Molly Bloom with his depiction of a woman whose effusive rants negate rather than affirm life. As her daughters Natasha and Charlotte hover about her bedside at the Royal Ear Hospital in Central London, Lily, who is dying of cancer, rails at doctors and sneaks painkillers to the smack-addicted Natasha. One can hardly blame Lily for her frustration. Describing the way nurses look in on her, she claims, it's "uncannily like being a boiler and having someone lean over to check your pilot light." When she passes into a morphine stupor, she attacks the figments of her memories. She is angry about having wasted her best years in a dilapidated duplex; she still hates her emotionally tightfisted husband Yaws, years after his death; and most of all she hates her body. Her weight fluctuations have required constant monitoring and dieting. "I've been buried alive in the flesh-eating box of my own body," she declares.

Death fails to alleviate any of these complaints. An "aboriginal" man smoking hand-rolled cigarettes wanders into her hospital room and offers to guide her to Dulston, the place where the dead go. In Dulston she moves into a flat, only to discover that her unruly next-door neighbors are her former fat selves. Night and day they taunt her with the chant, 'You're Fat, You're Old.' Worse, the fossilized remnant of a 1967 miscarriage waddles around on its stumps, singing ditties in a tinny voice. All the dead smoke with impunity. And they slog through interminable 12-step programs to learn how to adjust to their lifeless state.

At first Lily enjoys the novelty of her quirky existence, but then she realizes how little has changed. "The English dead," she notes, "doted on their famously deceased, being at great pains to report that they had met so-and-so, preferably while both parties were alive." This richly imagined but oddly soulless book provokes a similar sense of disappointment. By satirizing death as the repository for all that is banal in life, How the Dead Live implicitly points to our lives as the time to make our mark and forge meaningful relationships. Yet the novel rarely escapes the airless room of Lily's anger. She is trapped in herself, and by token of Self's caustic prose, so are we.

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